The United States is Israel’s ally of first choice. And Israel remains one of the few countries the US can rely on to defend itself by itself and in coordination with American interests. Today, Israel lies in EUCOM – the United States European Command – while some analysts suggest it belongs in CENTCOM – the Central Command, encompassing the Middle East and parts of Southwest and Central Asia.
Historically, having Israel in EUCOM had its downsides – American military personnel in CENTCOM were, at one point, prevented from visiting Israel despite common interests. Their knowledge of Israel was skewed by Arab states with which they worked. I had the honor for years of accompanying recently retired American Flag and General Officers to Israel – and tried to choose CENTCOM officers to “right the ship” a bit. One Marine general was a tough sell, ultimately convinced to go by another participant. About three weeks after the trip, he called; it went like this:
Him: I didn’t want to go on your trip.
Me: Tell me something I don’t know.
Him: XX convinced me to do it.
Me: Again, tell me something I don’t know.
Him: OK, I’ll tell you something you don’t know. On the third day in Israel, I woke up and said, “Son of a bitch! These guys are on OUR side.”
Me: I didn’t know that.
He explained that his Arab CENTCOM partners were telling him, “We could be much better friends and allies to the United States if you would just solve the Israel problem. Just solve the Israel problem.” The general didn’t know there was an “Israel problem,” or how to solve it, but it gnawed at him that Israel was somehow keeping Kuwaitis, Saudis, and others from being full-on allies – or so they said. When he got to Israel, his confusion cleared. There WAS no “Israel problem.”
Those who advocate moving Israel to CENTCOM understand that general and are looking for “improved strategic and operational coordination among the United States, Israel and our Arab partners throughout the region against Iran and other serious shared threats.” OK, but what actually happened was simpler: CENTCOM changed its rules. The commander of CENTCOM first visited Israel in 2018 and CENTCOM military officers are no longer precluded from visiting or working with the Israel Defense Forces.
Grab a map. CENTCOM covers not only Abraham Accords partners plus Jordan and Egypt, but also countries that have no relations, hostile relations, and/or a state of war with Israel. Not to mention some that are actively engaged in jihad and some are engaged with Iran. Intelligence-sharing would be a nightmare. While the EU and NATO are the primary political/military interlocutors of Europe, CENTCOM’s political interlocutors include the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic States. Finding appropriate military and intelligence-sharing accommodations among those countries, organizations and Israel is likely impossible and trying to split the differences isn’t a good use of American forces in the region.
Most important, putting Israel in CENTCOM would make it a “one trick pony” aimed at Iran because Iran is the only large scale “serious shared threat.” But Israel has significant military and political interests other than Iran – not in place of Iran, but other than.
Grab another map. Israel in EUCOM is not a geographical anomaly – it anchors the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. All of the northern border states of the sea are NATO members. All of the southern border states plus Israel and Jordan are members of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue – except Libya. Libya (in US AFRICOM) has been the access point for African migrants going to Europe and its unsettled military situation makes it a prime distribution point for arms to jihadists on the continent and the Middle East. The Med is Europe’s lifeline but a recalcitrant Turkey has created a maritime “border” with Libya that could undermine freedom of the seas for Lebanon as well as Israel and its partners in the Eastern Mediterranean Energy Consortium: Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Italy.
A linchpin country for both Commands, Israel has been training on land, sea, and air with NATO since 2005. Joint exercises, technology and intelligence sharing, and a similar, democratic outlook on governance have made military-to-military relations a benefit to both. European governments criticize Israel politically, but they are aligned on regional security concerns. Israel is only beginning to explore the possibility of diplomatic relations with the world of CENTCOM (in which Israel is the only democracy). Sharing military strategy and technology is a long way off – if ever.
In 2017, Israel hosted French and German contingents training in the Negev Desert. It was the first time French planes had flown in Israel since the 1956 Sinai Campaign. And if you thought you’d ever see the Luftwaffe as an honored guest in Israel, you have a better imagination than I do.
In 2018, Israel and Europol signed an intelligence-sharing pact in the areas of fraud, cyber-crime and terrorism. Catherine De Bolle, executive director of Europol, said: “Today, I am signing the first ever Europol working arrangement between Europol and a non-EU country… It is a major step forward in enhancing the relationship between Europol and Israel.”
Blue Flag air force exercises happened again in 2019, and although EUCOM canceled a combined missile defense exercise in Israel in the spring over concerns about COVID-19, in August, Israeli jets flew in Germany for the first time.
These are not exclusive exercises – India flew in Blue Star in 2017 and, perhaps in a harbinger of things to come, the United Arab Emirates flew with Israeli planes in Greece three years ago. But broadly sharing the training, tactics, and technology it is willing to share with NATO and EUCOM is unlikely to be a comfortable prospect for Israel.
In October of this year, an Israeli journalist wrote that concurrent with The Five Eyes (virtual) intelligence meeting of the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, the US was holding an aerial refueling exercise in Israel. “As noteworthy as the exercise itself was the decision to publicize it. The Pentagon’s news release stated that the two Air Forces ‘trained to maintain a ready posture and strengthen strategic partnership across CENTCOM and EUCOM.’”
Around the world, the US has allies that are not allies of Israel. Qatar, home of the Al Udeid Air Base, is considered a strategic partner of the United States, but carries water for Iran. But if the Pentagon can find training in Israel to be useful in CENTCOM, so be it.
Israel aligns with the West. Israel and the United States are drawn together by common values and common threats to our wellbeing. Bipartisan support of Israel in Washington is a testament to those values as well as to the practical recognition that the threats require cooperation. EUCOM countries are a step or two behind, but CENTCOM countries are far from seeing Israel as an integral part of the region. It is in the interest of Israel and all its allies to watch and encourage the process, finding intersections where they can without destroying the Western alliance that has emerged through and around EUCOM.